Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 333–343 | Cite as

Illness as unhomelike being-in-the-world: Heidegger and the phenomenology of medicine

  • Fredrik SvenaeusEmail author
Scientific Contribution


In this paper, an attempt is made to develop an understanding of the essence of illness based on a reading of Martin Heidegger’s pivotal work Being and Time. The hypothesis put forward is that a phenomenology of illness can be carried out through highlighting the concept of otherness in relation to meaningfulness. Otherness is to be understood here as a foreignness that permeates the ill life when the lived body takes on alien qualities. A further specification of this kind of otherness can be found with the concept of unhomelike being-in-the-world. Health, in contrast to this frustrating unhomelikeness, is a homelike being-in-the-world in which the lived body in most cases has a transparent quality as the point of access to the world in understanding activities. The paper then proposes that the temporal structure of illness can be conceptualised as an alienation of past and future, whereby one’s past and future appear alien, compared with what was the case before the onset of illness. The remainder of the paper follows two paths as regards the temporality of illness. The first path explores the temporality of the body in relation to the temporality of the being-in-the-world of the self. One way of understanding the alienating character of illness is that nature, as the temporality of our bodies, ceases to obey our attempts to make sense of phenomena: the time of the body no longer fits into the time of the self. The second path explored in the paper is that of narrativity. When we make sense of the present, in relation to our future and past, we do so in a special manner, namely, by structuring our experiences in the form of stories. Illness breaks in on us as a rift in these stories, necessitating a retelling of the past and a re-envisioning of the future in an effort to address and change their alienated character. These stories, however, never allow us to leave the silent otherness of our bodies behind. They are stories nurtured by the time of nature at the heart of our existence. It is then claimed that the idea of life’s being a story must be understood in a metaphorical sense, and an exploration of how phenomenology addresses the metaphoric quality of its conceptuality is ushered in. It is pointed out that metaphors can be systematically related to each other and that they always have a founding ground in the orientation and basic activities of the lived body. Therefore, if the concepts used in working out a phenomenological theory of health and illness are, to a certain extent, metaphorical, one could, nevertheless, claim that the metaphoric qualities of the phenomenological concepts are primary in referring back to the lived body and the way it inhabits the world.


Phenomenology of health and illness Heidegger Lived body Time Narrative Metaphor 


  1. Aho, K.A. 2009. Heidegger’s neglect of the body. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  2. Boss, M. 1975. Grundriss der Medizin und der Psychologie. Bern: Hans Huber Verlag.Google Scholar
  3. Frank, A. 1997. The wounded storyteller: body, illness, and ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  4. Fuchs, T. 2000. Psychopathologie von Leib und Raum: Phänomenologisch-empirische Untersuchungen zu depressiven und paranoiden Erkrankungen. Darmstadt: Steinkopff.Google Scholar
  5. Fuller, S. 2005. The philosophy of science and technology studies. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Gadamer, H.-G. 1993. Über die Verborgenheit der Gesundheit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.Google Scholar
  7. Gallagher, S. 2005. How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Goldie, P. 2004. On personality. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Heidegger, M. 1996. Being and time. (trans: Stambaugh J.). Albany: State University of New York Press. (Original work published 1927; references in this paper refer to the standard German pagination found in the margins of the English translation).Google Scholar
  10. Kleinman, A. 1988. The illness narratives: Suffering, healing and the human condition. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  11. Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 2003. Metaphors we live by, with a new afterword, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  12. Leder, D. 1990. The absent body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Lindemann Nelson, H. (ed.). 1997. Stories and their limits: Narrative approaches to bioethics. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Ricoeur, P. 1984–1988. Time and narrative, 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  15. Spiegelberg, H. 1972. Phenomenology in psychology and psychiatry. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Svenaeus, F. 2001. The Hermeneutics of medicine and the phenomenology of health: Steps towards a philosophy of medical practice. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  17. Svenaeus, F. 2005. Phenomenology and psychiatry: A contemporary diagnosis introducing the work of Thomas Fuchs. SATS Nordic Journal of Philosophy 6: 202–211.Google Scholar
  18. Svenaeus, F. 2009. The phenomenology of falling Ill: An explication critique and improvement of Sartre’s theory of embodiment and alienation. Human Studies 32: 53–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Svenaeus, F. 2010. What is an organ? Heidegger and the phenomenology of organ transplantation. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 31: 179–196.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Toombs, S.K. 1992. The meaning of illness: A phenomenological account of the different perspectives of physician and patient. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  21. Zaner, R.M. 1981. The context of self: A phenomenological inquiry using medicine as a clue. Athens: Ohio University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Studies in Practical Knowledge, Department of PhilosophySödertörn UniversityHuddingeSweden

Personalised recommendations